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Reconciliation in the Murray-Darling Basin

Nov 14, 2016
Author: Kathryn Nicholas


South Australia is working towards achieving reconciliation in water resources management through unique research conducted by the Goyder Institute for Water Research and being driven by Indigenous interests.

The Goyder Institute project Incorporating Ngarrindjeri knowledge into Coorong and Lakes water planning, led by Assoc Prof Steve Hemming and Prof Daryle Rigney from Flinders University, follows-up on research conducted in Indigenous engagement in environmental water planning, research and management: Innovations in South Australia’s Murray-Darling Basin Region

The project is examining the relationship between key Ngarrindjeri markers for the cultural health of the Coorong Ramsar site and the development of an effective methodology to inform the broader Ecological Character Description for the Coorong and Lower Lakes wetland and influence the implementation of the Basin-wide environmental watering strategy and annual priorities.

The Ngarrindjeri Nation are the traditional owners of the lower Murray River, western Fleurieu Peninsula, and Coorong region of South Australia. Ngarrindjeri have strongly advocated to have their knowledge taken seriously and to build new relationships with the State Government. This has led to major formal agreements, such as the  Kungun Ngarrindjeri Yunnan (listen to Ngarrindjeri speaking)  Agreements that recognise the unique and ongoing, relationship Ngarrindjeri have with country and their responsibility to look after it.

Assoc Prof Hemming says the research focused on using the innovations of the KNYA negotiating strategy as a starting point to build Ngarrindjeri involvement in water planning and natural resource management. For Ngarrindjeri this is an example of Indigenous nation building.

“The research we’ve been doing has been trying to work out how to make sense of these agreements in the complex space of water planning, Murray-Darling Basin planning, wetland planning, Ramsar planning – all of which are interlinked,” he said.  “How does that planning process connect with Ngarrindjeri aspirations and understandings of country?”

The millennium drought period in South Australia saw an opportunity for Ngarrindjeri to engage differently with government. They established new ties and have been involved heavily in working on projects and programs ever since. The Ngarrindjeri achievements in the Coorong and Lower Lakes areas are internationally important as they are occurring outside of Native Title resolution or formalised treaty.

“The Goyder Institute research has provided an opportunity to think about and research how government engages with Indigenous people around water planning and natural resource management and how to make it work better,” Assoc Prof Hemming said.

“Our most recent project looked at understanding and describing the Lower Murray/Coorong Lakes Ramsar Site – and through describing it defining the type of management action that should occur. If you understand that area as Ngarrindjeri country, and Ngarrindjeri are a part of that country, what are the implications of that understanding to the way you manage the space?

“This is a radical change to the Ramsar planning space in Australia, but it’s in line with where Indigenous engagements with these spaces are travelling all around the world. There’s indigenous people world-wide interacting with Ramsar spaces and there’s a changing landscape of engagement with Indigenous knowledges, Indigenous philosophies and Indigenous perspectives. In South Australia, what we’ve been doing is taking part in that international process of thinking about changing the way things get done.”

Ngarrindjeri understandings of connection to country are thousands of years old, complex, sophisticated and are valuable to better understanding how to look after a Ramsar site, but its translation into the existing Ramsar Ecological Character Description (ECD) process is challenging, Assoc Prof Hemming says.

“Ngarrindjeri have in a sense performed a critique of the Australian ECD processes and we argue that the way that non-Indigenous science understands ‘country’ limits the ability to understand the connections between people, places, plants, animals and natures,” he said. “If you want to manage something you’ve got to understand it, if you don’t understand it you’re going to make bad management decisions.”

Assoc Prof Hemming adds that Indigenous understandings benefit the concept of wise-use and provide non-Indigenous managers with an enhanced way of looking after country. Integrating an Indigenous worldview to wetland character description also facilitates enhanced opportunities for Indigenous partnership in wetland management.

The research demonstrates the benefits of Ngarrindjeri agreement making to their partnership in Ramsar wetland management in Australia. 

“We found that although the ECD process in Australia restricts the integration of Indigenous worldviews into the description process, the KNY Agreement is supporting our strong involvement in regional Ramsar planning and management and the recognition of Ngarrindjeri values and interests,” Assoc Prof Hemming said.

“Ngarrindjeri are the country. The lands and waters is a living body and Ngarrindjeri are part of that living body. If something happens to that living body then something happens to the Ngarrindjeri. Non-Indigenous people are starting to gain a really strong understanding of that.”

The Goyder Institute research also examined synergies between growing scientific knowledge of the relationship between freshwater flows and ecosystem processes and biota and Ngarrindjeri long-term knowledge of the Coorong and Lower Lakes.

The research worked towards improved understanding of the relationship between freshwater flow and the Ngarrindjeri cultural health of the Coorong Ramsar site, and provides increased understanding of the Ngarrindjeri case for supporting freshwater flows to the Coorong and Lower Lakes.

“Ngarrindjeri knowledge is a test for scientific knowledges in some ways,” Assoc Prof Hemming explains. “The scientific knowledges tend to be playing catch-up and when you talk to individual scientists they usually recognise that – they’re working away on something, they’re trying to recognise something – but when that scientific knowledge is bundled up and it’s attempted to be used by an authority in natural resources management then decisions have to be made about how you manage things, and that’s when to some extent there can be a breakdown in understanding the complex connections between things.

“Management often operates in a more compartmentalised way – so people are not thinking about the effects of how doing something over here affects something over there. However, this approach is changing and shifting.”

The research highlighted synergies between scientists and Ngarrindjeri such as the need for good flow, an open Murray mouth, and the need to have connectivity between the Coorong, the Lakes and the Murray River. Many of the key principles scientists apply to keeping a healthy system are in line with Ngarrindjeri values.

The Goyder research recognised that there is a lot of common ground, with some areas where there’s a lack of understanding or different cultural perspectives,” Hemming said. “But if you can establish the common ground you can then negotiate better.

“This research is trying to create a conversation between Indigenous science and non-Indigenous science, Indigenous knowledges and non-Indigenous knowledges, and interests, so that that conversation can lead to better understandings and better shared positions around what counts as a healthy place.”

The Goyder Institute research has facilitated multi-level engagement of Ngarrindjeri with state government, federal government, and internationally to influence Australia’s approach to including Indigenous values into Ramsar wetland planning and the priorities being set by the Ramsar Culture Working Group for the inclusion of cultural values under the international Ramsar Convention.

The Ngarrindjeri have applied for funding to work with NRM and indigenous groups in Mexico – leaders in engaging Indigenous interests in Ramsar sites.

“One of the people who we are working with in Mexico is someone who has worked on the most recent Ramsar treaty management strategic plan that has new guidelines in it for engaging with Indigenous people,” Assoc Prof Hemming said. “We’re working with the Mexicans to put up a proposal to the Ramsar treaty process. If changes happen at an international level, then this will have implications for the processes here in Australia.

“Ngarrindjeri need to operate as the equivalent of a local council and have resources to do their job. If they have that opportunity South Australia will have a much healthier Indigenous community and growing economic potential in the region. This Goyder Institute research is also trying to find ways to support that conversation, better understand it and try to work out how to make that change.”